--Richard W. Riley, U.S. Secretary of Education
The need for increased opportunities for children to learn and develop in safe and drug-free environments outside of regular school hours is clear. Without affordable, high-quality after-school care available to parents who work, many children must care for themselves or be supervised by older siblings responsibilities that distract them from school work. Lacking constructive community activities to engage them after school, children are vulnerable to drug use and gang involvement outside of school hours. In communities without libraries, many children do not have access to books and other information resources or adults who can help with challenging homework; as a result, some of these students may not learn the skills they need to become productive citizens.
This guidebook focuses on keeping neighborhood school buildings open as Community Learning Centers to give our children opportunities to enhance their learning and be involved in enriching activities in convenient, caring environments. Research shows the importance of keeping schools open as after-school and summer Community Learning Centers:
Few opportunities exist for young people. While there has been a growth in the availability of after-school care programs for children over the last 20 years, relatively few organized, extended learning opportunities exist. Extended learning programs in schools are even more scarce, especially for older children and youth. In 1995, there were 23.5 million school-age children with parents in the workforce. But as recently as 1993-94, only 974,348 children in public elementary and combined schools (just 3.4 percent of all public elementary and combined school students) were enrolled in 18,111 before- or after-school programs at public schools. Seventy percent of all public elementary and combined schools did not offer before- or after-school programs.
Parents want more access to extended learning opportunities but may face barriers in accessing them. A 1994 survey of parents found that 56 percent think that many parents leave their children alone too much after school. And principals have long seen a need for extended learning programs; in a 1989 survey, 84 percent of school principals agreed that there is a need for before- and after-school programs. Studies have identified some barriers to participation (e.g., hours of the program, transportation, concern over program activities and quality), the most frequently mentioned barrier to anticipation being parents' inability to pay the tuition and fees charged by programs. Barriers to offering programs have been identified, also, including the unwillingness of unions (teacher, paraprofessional, and custodial) to extend the hours of their members and charging high rental rates for the use of the school facility.
Youth are at greatest risk of violence after the regular school day. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, youth between the ages of 12 and 17 are most at risk of committing violent acts and being victims between 3 p.m and 6 p.m.--a time when they are not in school at the end of the regular school day.
Organized activities help children resist unsafe behaviors and enhance learning. After-school and summer programs can offer the support and supervision children need in order to learn and to resist the influences of unsafe or violent behaviors. While some of the research is contradictory, children under adult supervision in formal programs that exhibit quality indicators (lower student staff rations, age-appropriate activities, academic and enrichment activities) demonstrate higher academic achievement and better attitudes toward school than children left alone or under the care of siblings. Community public school facilities can offer the venue for such programs, for, otherwise, from the last bell of the school day to the first bell of the next day--16 hours each day--one of the community's largest capital investments sits vacant.
Children in quality programs do better in school. Research indicates that program quality is very important. Students have more positive interactions with staff when student to staff ratios are low, staff are well-trained, and a wide variety of activities are offered. Students in quality programs may have better peer relations and better grades and conduct in school than their peers in other care arrangements.
Teachers and principals are recognizing the positive effects of good quality programs on their students. The Cooperative Extension Service found that in programs that had received their assistance, teachers reported that the programs helped the children to become more cooperative, handle conflicts better, develop an interest in recreational reading, and earn better grades. More than one-third of the school principals stated that vandalism in the school decreased as a result of the programs.
Youth need opportunities outside of the regular school day to be mentored by adults and introduced to new activities that they can master. Research clearly shows that positive and sustained interactions with adults contribute to the overall development of young people and their achievement in school. Mentoring middle school students in math and science is one important activity that can increase the likelihood of future college going. After-school activities also allow children and youth to explore and master activities (art, dance, music, sports) that can contribute to their overall well-being and achievement.
Children who spend more time in learning activities and organized extracurricular activities learn more. This is especially true for reading and an important research-based premise of the President's America Reads Challenge proposal. Also, students who are involved in extracurricular activities such as academic clubs, sports, student government, band, and special lessons show greater achievement.
Children want and need organized after-school activities. Children left to themselves or under the care of siblings after school experience greater fear of accidents and crimes and are more bored than other children. They also are more likely to engage in risk-taking behaviors and drug and alcohol use, and are more often the victims of accidents and abuse. Children who spend more hours on their own and who began self-care at younger ages are at increased risk.
By offering a safe learning environment before- and after-school and during the summer, schools can become Community Learning Centers that help children read, learn more, and avoid destructive or dangerous activities. The programs can be simple, focused on a single goal, and funded by reallocating existing resources. Or they can address an array of conditions, involve many community partners in a systems-building approach, and attract support from many sources. In both cases, after-school and summer learning opportunities in a safe, drug-free environment can make a profound difference in children's lives.
Helm (1993) describes the planning, organization, and mission of the Valeska Hinton Early Childhood Education Center in Peoria, Illinois.